The Mayor of Claycord yesterday reported on a student's suicide attempt at Clayton Valley School and included a recording of the voice message that Principal Gary Swanson left at the homes of students.
Some might question whether the Mayor should have reported this... I'll get to that question in a minute.
Regarding the incident: According to Principal Swanson and comments left by eyewitnesses on Claycord.com's message board, the student cut her wrists, and this occurred during lunch time.
Swanson said the student "hurt herself," and "friends were close by and were able to render immediate first aid and get additional help." Swanson added that the girl is doing OK, but advised parents to be prepared to talk to their kids about the incident and that crisis counselors would be available at the school today to meet with students. Some of those comments on Claycord.com came from parents who either knew the girl herself or had kids who witnessed the incident, and at least one parent said her own child was traumatized by it.
First of all, I think those girl's friends deserve some kind of public commendation. They acted quickly and with the presence of mind, in a very upsetting, frightening situation, to provide first aid and to get immediate help. Meanwhile, as a parent, I think Principal Swanson set a good example for communicating with his school community about a traumatic incident. He immediately alerted the school community about this incident. No doubt, it was something all the kids, teachers, and parents would be talking about yesterday, and will probably be talking about today.
As for whether the Mayor should have publicized this incident? Will that bring further shame and stigma to this student and her family? Some people I told about this post thought so.
At the same time, I'm pretty sure that most kids at Clayton Valley know who she is, as do their parents. For one thing, the comments on his message board overwhelmingly express support for her and her family.
The Mayor's blog, and now mine, does introduce the topic to people outside of Clayton Valley High community, but is that a bad thing? I think the Mayor provided an important public service about a situation that often gets buried. I didn't see any mention of it in the print or online edition of the Contra Costa Times. Maybe their reporters didn't get the word, though it was on Claycord yesterday afternoon. Maybe it's tucked far in some back page, or somewhere deep one the website.
But if mention of this incident is not in the Times, it could be due to that rule we always had in mainstream media world--that you don't report on suicides, unless it occurs in a very public manner--say, by walking into traffic on the freeway, or shooting yourself in the plaza in front of Nordstrom in Walnut Creek's Broadway Plaza.
The thinking behind not publicizing suicide is that this manner of death should be private because it is shameful. This thinking reflects larger cultural and religious attitudes about suicide, as well as the depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses that lead people to attempt it.
Another concern about publicizing suicides, especially when you're dealing with young people, is that doing so will somehow glamorize it and lead to copycat attempts.
Maybe. But is hiding it, not talking about it, treating it as something shameful a preferable way to go? Ultimately, I don't think so.
The fact is, mental illness and suicide are serious public health issues. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 600,000 people in one year (2006) went to the emergency rooms of hospitals for self-inflicted injuries, and 33,000 people died by suicide. In 2007, suicide was the 11th leading cause of death for all ages, and the third leading cause of death of 15- to 24-year-olds.
Also in 2007:
• Suicide accounted for 12 percent of all deaths among among 15- to 24-year olds.
• 14.5 percent of students in grades 9-12 seriously considered suicide in the previous 12 months (18.7 percent of females and 10.3 percent of males).
• Nearly 7 percent of students reported making at least one suicide attempt in the previous 12 months
• 2 percent students had made a suicide attempt that resulted in an injury, poisoning, or an overdose that required medical attention
As for mental illness, the National Institute of Mental Health says that around 26 percent of Americans 18 or older suffer from a diagnosable mental illness in a given year, and about 6 percent suffer from what could be called a serious disorder. As for youth, only about half of kids and teens who have certain mental disorders, including depression and anxiety, receive treatment. And, 13 percent of youth participating in a national study met the criteria for having these disorders.
In the end, the Mayor focused attention, not just on this one student's emergency, but on general community concerns about youth mental health and suicide, judging by the comments on his blog. People got to vent, and even share their own stories about people they knew who took their own lives, and how it affected them.
Meanwhile, one of the Mayor's readers provided useful information, especially for people this time of year, when stress and anxiety can be particularly high. It is the contact information for the Contra Costa Crisis Center. Here are tips on identifying someone who is suicidal and how to get help. And, here is the number for the suicide prevention hotline: (800) 273-TALK (8255) and crisis hotline (800) 833-2900.